The Cranston, Rhode Island School Committee defended its prayer on the ground that it had been glued to the wall for a long time and therefore had historical value.
“No amount of history and tradition can cure a constitutional infraction,” rejoined U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Lagueux
In January, he told officials at Cranston West High School to get rid of a prayer posted on an auditorium wall since 1963.
In letters 3 inches tall and 2 inches wide, the prayer reads,
“Our Heavenly Father,
“Grant us each day the desire to do our best, to grow mentally and morally as well as physically, to be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers, to be honest with ourselves as well as with others, help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win, teach us the value of true friendship, help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.
In 2010, complaints led the School Committee to consider removing the prayer, and atheist student Jessica Ahlquist testified in favor of removal then and in 2011.
Audience members reviled her. For instance, one woman said, “If people want to be Atheist,…they can go to hell.” Two speakers said Ahlquist should be charged with a hate crime.
In March, the School Committee voted to keep the prayer. Ahlquist and her father sued, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Judge Lagueux wrote, “After Plaintiff’s comments before the School Committee, and particularly after the lawsuit was filed, Plaintiff was subject to frequent taunting and threats at school, as well as a virtual on-line hate campaign via Facebook.”
Judge Lagueux found that “The holding in Stone v. Graham compels the court’s ruling.” In the case of Stone v. Graham, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a school district to remove copies of the Ten Commandments from school walls.
Lagueux quoted the case, “If the posted copies of the Ten Commandments are to have any effect at all, it will be to induce the schoolchildren to read, meditate upon, perhaps to venerate and obey, the Commandments. However desirable this might be as a matter of private devotion, it is not a permissible state objective under the Establishment Clause.”
The Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution forbids government advancement of religion.
Judge Lagueux praised Jessica Ahlquist, “Plaintiff is clearly an articulate and courageous young woman, who took a brave stand, particularly in light of the hostile response she has received from her community.”
He concluded his decision with a quotation from Roger Williams, Rhode Island’s seventeenth century founder, a champion of religious liberty, and himself a victim of religious persecution.
Here is the quotation:
“There goes many a ship to sea, with many hundred souls in one ship, whose weal and woe is common, and is a true picture of a commonwealth, or human combination, or society. It hath fallen out sometimes, that both Papists and Protestants, Jews and Turks, may be embarked on one ship; upon which supposal, I affirm that all the liberty of conscience I ever pleaded for, turns upon these two hinges, that none of the Papists, Protestants, Jews, or Turks be forced to come to the ship’s prayers or worship, nor compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any.”